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Newsy! Weirdos Unite + Millionaire’s Shortbread + Ann Patchett (v.51)

June 7th, 2017

Consider this:

Yes, I’m Weird. But So Are You.

Goat cheese. Gag. (photo credit here)

I don’t know exactly what got me thinking about my odd quirks, but it was probably goat cheese. Unlike almost everyone else, I absolutely despise the stuff. (My mom and sister do, too.) I hate it so much I tell people I’m allergic to it rather than explain how, when goat cheese mistakenly ends up in my mouth, I black out. Of course, I’m exaggerating. No amount of goat cheese can actually make me lose consciousness! However, if even the tiniest smear accidentally assaults my taste buds, I have to concentrate so hard on not gagging, retching or actually vomiting that I might as well be unconscious. So there’s no point in asking me why I’m spitting into a napkin and then stuffing it into the pocket of a nearby pool table (true story.)

So, yes, I’m weird. To prove it, here are ten more random weird things you might as well know about me.

  1. Everything I said about goat cheese applies to Romano cheese, too. You’re probably thinking, what? Romano is indistinguishable from Parmesan! Unfortunately, I can clearly distinguish it, especially when it’s grated into a bowl of delicious Parmesan and sprinkled liberally over my favorite pasta. So much for the romantic anniversary dinner.
  2. I can’t stand the sight (or the thought) of someone putting wooden chopsticks in their mouth. Going out for sushi can be very unsettling as I beg my husband not to let the sticks touch his lips. If they do, my skin crawls as if I’m covered with baby spiders, and I have to stare hard at my plate and think about kittens.
  3. I faint at blood, both real and imagined. I’ve written about this before, but my habit is both highly inconvenient and, sometimes, downright dangerous. Fainting has left me with a black eye, a bruised temple and, more than once, the burning humiliation of coming to with my skirt hitched up somewhere around my waist.
  4. I have never, ever tasted canned tuna fish.
  5. I can’t stand the expression, “I know, right?” Have three words ever joined forces to become so empty, so meaningless? (“President Donald Trump” doesn’t count). I mean, like, duh.
  6. Another pet peeve: Fewer vs. less. Here’s an easy way to remember the correct usage: If you have less water in a glass (volume or mass), you have fewer drops of water (individual or singular items you can count). Less money, fewer dollars. Less time, fewer minutes. My mom and I share this grammatical grouch. If we’re out together and hear someone mixing up the words, we catch each other’s eye. Fewer, my mom mouths in my direction. I raise my eyebrow and nod. Less, we correct sternly, in silent unison.
  7. You know those little boxes of code you have to decipher before submitting a web page to prove you’re not a robot? They totally stress me out because there’s always one number or letter I can’t read. I take my best guess and hit submit. Invariably, the page is rejected. With sweaty palms, I start again.
  8. Who invented the word “listicle?” More to the point, why? If someone knows how an uber-hip listicle is any different from a perfectly good list, please enlighten me. In the meantime, I’ve got a to-do list to write.
  9. I need exactly three pillows and two earplugs to fall asleep. Also, a pair of sturdy shoes next to my bed and my PJs securely fastened to my body. In the Bay Area, nocturnal earthquake anxiety is a powerful thing. (I know, right?)
  10. I spent years during and after college waiting tables, but I can’t spell “restaurant.” I always try “rest-a-raunt” before spellcheck corrects me. (Funny aside: Thanks to Google Trends, now you can look up the most commonly misspelled word in each state. Across the country, we stumble over “beautiful,” “tomorrow,” “diarrhea” and “pneumonia.” Wisconsin’s top spelling snafu? Wisconsin.)

Of course, this is just a partial list (not, ahem, a listicle) of my peccadillos, idiosyncrasies, quirks, penchants, proclivities, frailties and foibles. If you know me at all, I’m sure you can probably point out plenty more. That’s fine. After all, I know what makes you, tick, too. I understand that in your own unique way, you’re exactly as weird as I am. Power to the peculiar, I always say. So how about we meet somewhere to grab a drink or have a bite to celebrate our weird, wacky, wonderful ways? I’ll be there – provided, of course, that it’s a goat cheese-free zone.

Cook this:

Millionaire’s Shortbread

In New Zealand, the official category for this dessert is a “slice” or a “square.” I love the combination of chocolate, caramel and shortbread, which essentially means you’re eating three treats at the same time. Works for me!

Millionaire’s Shortbread

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and lightly flour your 7- or 8-inch square baking tin or lay down parchment paper so it covers the bottom and sides of the tin.

1 cup self-rising flour

½ cup brown sugar

1 cup shredded coconut

4 ounces melted butter

2 teaspoons butter (keep this separate from the other butter)

1 14-ounce tin sweetened condensed milk

2 tablespoons Golden Syrup (Note: Golden Syrup is a “thick, amber-colored form of inverted sugar syrup.” It is not honey. It is not maple syrup. If you can’t find actual Golden Syrup in the supermarket, you can buy it at Cost Plus World Market or, of course, on Amazon.)

4-6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (12-15 squares of a block of cooking chocolate)

Make the shortbread base by mixing together flour, brown sugar, coconut and 4 ounces of melted butter. Press into the bottom of the tin and bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a pot set over simmering water, melt remaining butter. Add condensed milk and Golden Syrup. Mix to combine, and then pour over the shortbread base. Bake another 15 minutes.

Now melt the chocolate over the hot water. Pour over the second layer and let cool. Before it is completely cool, cut into squares.

Read this:

The Magician’s Assistant and The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett

I’m currently reading The Magician’s Assistant, a 1997 book by Ann Patchett. I haven’t finished it yet, but like so many of Patchett’s novels, I find this one is fascinating. Whether she’s writing about hostage situations and opera (Bel Canto), fertility drugs and the Amazonian jungle (State of Wonder) or, in this case, a magician’s sleights of hand both on stage and off, Patchett knows how to get deep inside a subject and make it a part of her characters in a way that feels natural and authentic. For example, The Magician’s Assistant is about Sabine, a woman who helps a magician perform his tricks without a hitch. I love that Patchett makes a conscious and specific choice to write about the magician’s assistant, who does distinctly different work than the actual magician. Here’s how Sabine puts it:

There was no such thing as being a magician’s assistant without knowing the trick. People are misguided by the assistant’s surprise, the way her mouth opens in childlike delight as her glove is turned into a dove. But if you didn’t know how it would all turn out, you wouldn’t know where to stand, how to turn yourself to shield the magician’s hand or temporarily block the light. And if, in some impossible, unimaginable circumstance, the trick was not explained to the assistant, she would get it sooner or later out of sheer repetition …

I can only imagine how much research Ann Patchett conducted about magic and magicians in order to create a complex character who shares the spotlight with the main performer but still manages to stay in the shadows. With that in mind, I was fascinated to learn more about Patchett’s research and writing process in her essay, The Getaway Car. It’s one of my all-time favorite essays about writing and is the anchor piece in her nonfiction collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Here’s what Ann Patchett says about doing a deep, deep dive into a topic in order to write about it thoroughly and convincingly.

I have never subscribed to the notion of “writing what you know,” at least not for myself. I don’t know enough interesting things. I began to see research as both a means of writing more interesting novels and way to improve my own education. Case in point: I didn’t know a thing about opera, so I figured that writing about an opera singer would force me to learn. Conducting research … has turned out to be the greatest perk of the job. I’ve read Darwin and Mayr and Gosse to get a toehold on evolutionary biology. I’ve floated down the Amazon in an open boat just to see the leaves and listen to the birds …

The Getway Car is subtitled “A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.” Written in Patchett’s warm, friendly, funny, honest and concise style, it really is a practical guide for writers (or wanna’ be writers). Some tips and advice include, don’t go into debt to study creative writing, remember that “time applied equals work completed” and, if you really want to be a writer, then write. She says,

Do you really want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep witting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as monk walking the path of enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior waiting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.

Powerful, lovely stuff. Of course, The Magician’s Assistant and Happy Marriage are just two of Ann Patchett’s many great reads. If you’re looking to be entertained, enthralled and inspired this summer, spend some time with this writer. I think you’ll find she provides some darn good company.

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